New Libraries Make the City's Schools Come Alive
Susan Notes: I admit it: I turned to the On Education column with fear and loathing, and then I burst into tears. Happy tears. Michael Winerip is back!!
AFTER school, Helen Feldman, the librarian at Public School 105 in Far Rockaway, Queens, was doing a quick errand, hurrying past one of the many public housing projects in the neighborhood. The police were canvassing the projects, looking for leads on a dead child who had washed up on Rockaway Beach, when a boy shouted from a barred third-floor window.
"Hey Mrs. Feldman," Davonte McClendon, a third grader, yelled. "I'll see you later. I'm coming to the library."
It is a very big deal, the new library at P.S. 105. A new library feeds a boy's dreams. "When this library first opened," said Isaiah Ross, a fifth grader, "I promised myself I'd read every dinosaur book here."
A new library makes you feel like a million bucks. After Quindell Bowers, a first grader, checked out "Hey Al" by Arthur Yorinks, he skipped out of the library.
A new library smells good.
"When I come into the new library it smells like wood," Tyrone Irving, a fourth grader, wrote in his essay expressing thanks for the library.
The new library at P.S. 105 has a full-time certified librarian and a full-time aide, meaning it can be open before school, every period during school and even after school, for parents to come in with children and check out books. It is big enough that two classes can use the library each period.
Throughout the day, children leave their classrooms to visit and get books. The single-day circulation record at P.S. 105's new library is 167 - meaning 30 percent of students checked out a book that day.
A new library must be treated right, and the kindergarteners had several lessons before they could take out an actual book.
"My name is Elbin Delarosa," said a little boy, finally stepping up to the circulation desk.
"Oh, Elbin," said Elsa Aguero, the library aide. "I love the way you say your name."
When the Robin Hood Foundation, a nonprofit agency that fights poverty in New York City, was looking to help the schools, it decided on libraries, because a library is the one academic place every child in a school uses. Since 2002, 31 new Robin Hood libraries have been built at some of the poorest elementary schools citywide, and they are spectacular to behold, every one different and all worthy of an Architectural Digest spread.
The new library at the 110-year-old P.S. 106 in Bushwick, Brooklyn, was built on the fourth floor, in an attic space, and features a stairway that leads to two large windows with a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline. And those padded stairs double as seats for library classes.
When a library is the most beautiful room a child has ever seen, it sends a message. "One of my kids, a third grade boy, said to me, 'I want to be a librarian,' " said Concetta Ritorto, principal of P.S. 10 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. "I said, 'You're kidding.' " If you've seen the new library at P.S. 10 it makes sense; the wood-paneled room feels like a Midtown Manhattan law library.
But just as important as a beautiful space well stocked - Scholastic and HarperCollins donated a million books each for the libraries - are the people who run them. Robin Hood required that each new library have a full-time aide and a librarian with a master's in library science.
At P.S. 105, Mrs. Feldman, the librarian, has time to coordinate classroom lessons with teachers. For a kindergarten class studying transportation, she read, "Don't Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus." "Is this fiction or nonfiction?" Mrs. Feldman asked.
"Fiction," said a girl. "A pigeon can't drive a bus."
Mrs. Feldman had two dozen transportation books displayed for them to check out. For fifth graders doing a unit on African-American poetry, Mrs. Feldman used the library laptops to teach them how to convert their reports into a PowerPoint presentation. "That's hot," a fifth-grade girl whispered.
But a million PowerPoints won't matter if you can't find the books, and that's where the full-time aide comes in. All day long Ms. Aguero races around, reshelving books as soon as she checks them back in, thereby stretching the collection. February is Black History Month, and so, when six biographies are returned at 9:35 a.m., they're back on the shelf by 9:40. At the new library, everything is by the Dewey Decimal System: dinosaurs (567) are beside woolly mammoths (569); volcanoes (551) are beside rocks and minerals (552).
This may sound rudimentary, but not when compared with most New York City elementary school libraries. City officials say 100 of the 650 elementary schools have certified librarians; 25 percent have no library; and most have a teacher working part or full time doing library work.
A five-minute drive from P.S. 105's new library is P.S. 183, near Rockaway Beach. The library room there is run by a "cluster" teacher, who supervises students while their teacher takes a planning period. When I visited, the cluster teacher was at lunch, the library was locked and the principal, Renee Peart, had to find a key. The room was a quarter the size of P.S. 105's library. The card catalog was in disarray. Many shelves had books stacked randomly. Though it was Black History Month, atop the biography section sat a book on Tom Cruise. Ms. Peart said only two of the four computers worked and they were not suitable for research. When I asked a second grade teacher if she coordinated lessons with the library, she said no, but it was a good idea.
Ms. Peart has visited P.S. 105's new library. If she had one education wish, it would be that library. "What I noticed," she says, "children were excited about reading books. There's a magic."
It feels like magic. The old P.S. 105 library room was as limited as P.S. 183's is now. When the P.S. 105 principal, Laurie Shapiro, got the Robin Hood grant, her staff finally had time to sort through that old collection and discarded 8,000 of the 9,000 books - using face masks for protection from the dust.
The financing for the new libraries has been split, with Robin Hood providing about a third of the cost plus donated services like the architectural work and books, and the city the rest. Last fall, 25 more Robin Hood libraries were announced, with the city pledging $10 million and Robin Hood $6.25 million. Robin Hood had wanted to do 50, but city officials said they could not afford more. "We have a lot of needs to balance," says Carmen Fariņa, the deputy chancellor. "We have high schools that don't have science labs."
It was these very needs - libraries, science labs, small classes - that moved a state judge to rule last week that an additional $5.6 billion a year needed to be spent on city schools. That equity suit against the state has dragged on 12 years now, and still, Gov. George E. Pataki says he needs more time to work out a deal. Robin Hood officials would love for the governor to visit one of the new libraries, to see firsthand what that money could buy.
New York Times
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